I often feel guilty when days go by without any sketching exercise. I know well that drawing is just like sports, it takes daily practice to keep your skills fresh and to improve, yet there are often periods when I go for weeks without practice and later when I get back to it I can feel that there has been a regression. So I’ve been asking myself what is keeping me from drawing every day. The answers that came up are probably a topic for another discussion, but the thing that stood out to me the most was: It takes a lot of time and the reason for that is usually my perfectionism. I want a great looking sketch and it rarely happens.
Lately I’ve been enjoying a style of clean pen sketches, sometimes with some watercolor splashed here and there, but the way I’d usually go about it would be: make several pencil sketches on top of each other, erase a lot, cover my table into eraser dust (or whatever the chunks of scrapped paper and eraser are called), mess up the paper completely, maybe start over, get discouraged, hopefully make a pencil sketch I can work with, ink it, erase the underlying pencil sketch, smear the pen, because I’d be too impatient, get annoyed, at times not even finish… I’d end up with a sketch that’s neither presentable enough to show (because that seems to be a goal way more often than it should), nor would provide me with the exercise I needed, because instead of focusing on learning and exploring, I’d be too concerned with perfect results that I can show off.
The solution I came up with was simple: draw directly in pen! No pencils allowed! I even decided that the new sketchbook I stared will be a “pen only” sketchbook. It had the perfect size to be carried around all the time, nice, smooth pen- friendly paper and it was pretty cheap, so no worries about “ruining it”. In addition to it all I have received some pretty good pens as a gift and was excited to give them a go. I’m not yet even half way through the sketchbook, due to my busy schedule, but I can feel the results already, so here are the 10 things I discovered from only sketching in pen.
1. Perfect is not better
Imperfection is beautiful! A clumsy trembling line, a messed up perspective, badly placed object- no big deal! They all have a certain hand- made, unique and personal charm to them. All those characteristics are lost in a “perfect” finished piece. It’s funny that when I look at other people’s work I feel most drawn to those spontaneous looking, loose, free sketches, with an unfinished, unrefined charm and yet I restrict myself from producing them by seeking perfection.
2. It’s faster
Well, that’s probably obvious. No constant erasing, no time wasted to get details “right”. If it doesn’t work, just start over! For the most part though I was happy even with the mistakes. In couple of minutes you end up with a page filled with bunch of small studies and you already get a sense of achievement, because you see a result. When you have the opportunity to erase, the results just keep disappearing and it’s increasingly frustrating.
3. It’s cleaner
The pages remain white and crisp, not torn up and crumpled by the crazy erasing. No pencil smears either and if the pen is good, no ink stains. Furthermore the sketch won’t fade over time and turn the whole page grey, which is the case with my older sketchbooks filled up entirely in pencil drawings.
4. I’m braver
Drawing only in pencil has been an incredibly liberating experience. When you start with the thought that there will be no going back on your drawing there’s also no reason to hold back. It will be what it will be! One might think that the opportunity to erase will give more room for experimentation, because of the safety net it provides, but no, it doesn’t. At least not for me. When using a pen I don’t need to fear that I’ll screw up; I pretty much assume I will, so there’s nothing to lose, just have to do it and see what that teaches me, what interesting new results will emerge.
5. My concentration is better
Drawing in pen seems to make me more alert. When you know there’s no erasing you are trying to “get it right” the first time, so your focus is improved, which is a great thing also outside the context of drawing. Sketching is not just an exercise for the hand, but also for the eye and improved observation skills lead to better drawing. When you know your work will be permanent it also makes you think harder and plan your moves better. You have to visualize a finished piece upfront, so you can position it better.
6. I am more present
When I later look at those pen sketches I can remember where I was, what I was thinking, what my mood was, what I was listening to… It’s the perfect tool to create memories, especially when traveling. There’s a constant talk lately about the benefits of journaling. I’d say, make it an art journaling! Quickly sketching your experiences will capture the moment much better than any photograph. In fact I believe that in this day and age taking pictures actually destroys memory. Photographing is so easy, accessible and cheap, that we overdo it. We put zero thought into snapping a picture; we take too many and never look at them again. It just loses all meaning, but that is a topic for another day….
7. My confidence improves
I’ve noticed that my pen only sketches are not half as bad as I first expected them to be. I’m actually quite pleased with them. Few years ago I’ve almost stopped drawing on paper. Everything I did was digital and I was terrified of all traditional media, as I was sure it will show how bad I really am at drawing. Without Ctrl+Z to save me I have no unlimited opportunities to go back and keep fixing a piece until it looks good. Removing the option to go back is actually not that scary at all, in fact it will show you there’s nothing to fear. Mistakes are not that bad, nor happen that often. A great way to gain some extra confidence is to deny you the chance to go back and second guess yourself. It’s after all just practice!
8. I discover interesting lines and expressions
These show up especially in moments of laziness when I just don’t feel like doing it “properly” at all. I’d scribble or hatch as my hand feels like and I can see all the ways my hand wants to move and make lines. I never seem to do that in pencil as it more often than not creates a mess. Sketching in pen gives me sort of a map of what my hand is “thinking about” while moving around or maybe it’s the way my eyes move while tracing the object. It reminds me of a dance on paper and it’s beautiful! This effect resembles a blind contour exercise, but with some more control. It’s very relaxing too.
9. I can follow my process (and progress)
When you are erasing the different stages of your drawing you lose some of the process. Sometimes you even regret later on not following an earlier direction. That’s especially useful when making studies for a bigger piece. I can also notice that a lot in my digital work. When I make a logo or illustration in Adobe Illustrator I often copy paste before I continue, so I have saved an earlier stage of my work and can go back to it at any time without losing any of the progress. I also like keeping the entire work in progress. Occasionally an early idea would be better than the ones that come later. At times though they won’t, or you’d just make mistakes, but erased mistakes are forgotten, gone forever and yet bound to come back again. Leaving your mistakes obvious makes it easy to remember them, go back and learn from them.
10. It is actually fun!
Erasing frustrates me quite a lot and yet when I have the chance to do it its hard to resist, but when sketching in pen that decision is taken away from me. I just have to lean back and enjoy the ride wherever it wants to take me!
I’m sure there’s a lot more to learn from sketching in pen. I’m just starting now, but I’m sure I’ll have more to add to the list in the future. Have you tried pen only sketching? Did you enjoy and what did you learn? I’d love to hear more opinions, so please share in the comments!